"I've always liked working on stories that combine people who are relatable with something insane." — J.J. Abrams
The biggest movie news of the new year — of the new millenium, in some circles — is Disney’s recent announcement that popular television writer-producer and movie director J.J. Abrams has been hired to usher in the new era of Star Wars movies as the director of Star Wars: Episode VII. The news was almost universally celebrated, except within the die-hard fan community, where it ignited a firestorm of controversy among sci-fi devotees who love Abrams’ work, but believe that he is too close to a property that has long been Star Wars’ chief competitor to be handed the reins. If you’re not quite up to speed on Abrams and his work and want to be able to join in on what is sure to be a hot topic for the next couple of years, read on to learn how you can become conversant in J.J. Abrams in under eight hours.
(2006, 126 minutes)
"I will bleed on the American flag to make sure those stripes stay red."
Abrams had been directing for television for more than six years when he finally made the leap to directing a feature film. It had also been six years since the last movie in the Mission: Impossible franchise and the third installment needed to be bigger and better than its predecessors if the series was going to continue. Critics agreed that Abrams succeeded in delivering a superior action movie, rating it higher than both of its predecessors, but it did not fare as well at the box office, most likely due to the controvery surrounding series star and producer Tom Cruise at the time.
The movie finds Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) forced to come out of retirement from field missions after one of his protégés, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), is captured. Hunt and his team manage to rescue Farris, but she dies when an explosive placed in her head by arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymor Hoffman) goes off before Hunt can disable it. Guilt-ridden, Hunt decides to remain in the field to take down Davian, who is after a mysterious object known only as the "Rabbit's Foot," which will be used to spark a new war in the Middle East.
With Mission: Impossible III, Abrams proved that he was just as capable of directing an edge-of-the-seat action movie as he is at developing compelling television programs. It's a perfect starting point for any analysis of his movie career because it contains all of the style elements that will come to characterize his vision as a director, such as the use of hyper-saturated contrasting colors and copious amounts of lens flares.
(2009, 127 minutes)
"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise."
In 2005, after more than 700 television episodes spanning 30 seasons and 10 feature films, the Star Trek franchise appeared to have finally run its course with the cancellation of the latest series, Star Trek: Enterprise. Paramount decided to give the franchise one last shot and hired Mission: Impossible III writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to pen a script for a new movie and Abrams' Bad Robot to produce it. Abrams had grown up a Star Wars fan and wasn't that interested in Star Trek, but agreed to produce it as a favor to Orci, Kurtzman and producer Damon Lindelof. However, after reading the script, Abrams realized he would be "so agonizingly envious of whoever stepped in and directed the movie" that he decided to direct it himself. Star Trek opened to rave reviews from both critics and die-hard Trekkies and outperformed every other Star Trek movie at the box office, even adjusted for ticket price inflation.
The movie opens in the year 2233, with a Federation (the good guys) starship investigating a mysterious "lightning storm" in space. A Romulan (the bad guys) spaceship emerges from the storm and attacks the ship, resulting in the death of Lieutenant Commander George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) years before he was meant to die, creating a timeline divergent from the original series in which James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up without a father and with a huge chip on his shoulder. Going nowhere in life, he reluctantly decides to join the Starfleet Academy, but he is brought before a disciplinary hearing by Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) after it is discovered he cheated on a test. The hearing is interrupted by a distress signal from Spock's home planet of Vulcan and Kirk tricks his way aboard the Enterprise to help out. After attempting to stage a mutiny against Spock's command, Kirk is abandoned on an isolated planet, where he encounters Spock (Leonard Nimoy) from the future, who is the primary target of the Romulan leader Nero's (Eric Bana) campaign of revenge against the Federation. After escaping the planet and returning to the Enterprise, Kirk provokes young Spock into relinquishing command and Kirk takes the fight to Nero as the acting commander of the Enterprise.
Despite not being a fan of Star Trek — or perhaps because he was not — Abrams managed to make the 40-year old franchise hip, relevant and easily accessible to a whole new generation of moviegoers, while remaining respectful enough of the original series to please even the die-hard fans. This is exactly the type of approach that Star Wars VII needs to gain new fans and excite the longtime fans who were disappointed with the prequels.
(2011, 112 minutes)
"If you speak of this, you and your parents will be killed."
The incredible success of Star Trek afforded Abrams the opportunity to develop an original movie idea for Paramount. Abrams combined a couple of ideas that he had been kicking around for some time into an homage to Steven Spielberg movies of the '70s and the result was a nostalgic, emotional, thrilling sci-fi movie that pleased critics and turned a healthy profit thanks to its relatively small budget.
Set in a small Ohio town during the summer of 1979, the movie focuses on a group of kids who witness a massive train derailment while making a super 8 movie about zombies. The kids investigate the crash, discovering a pile of strange white cubes, but they are chased off by the arrival of the U.S. Air Force. Strange things begin happening all over town, from electronic equipment being stolen to people and pets disappearing. As the military begins to evacuate the town, the kids review the footage they shot at the train station and discover that an alien creature emerged from the wreckage. Is it the vanguard of an alien invasion or simply a wayward traveler learning to return to the stars? You'll have to watch the movie to find out for yourself.
Super 8 typifies Abrams' love of mysteries and his desire to keep as much about the movies he makes a secret until they open in theaters as possible. His love of secrecy mirrors that of Star Wars creator George Lucas, who used the fake working title Blue Harvest to disguise the production of Star Wars decades before the immediacy and interconnectivity of the internet made it a common practice in Hollywood.
It’s also important to take a quick look at Abrams' career in television because, even if you're not too familiar with his movies, there's a good chance that you've seen an episode or two of one of the many series he had a hand in creating. This is not part of our recommended viewing list — it would take you more than 80 hours to watch every episode of Lost alone — but it's good information to have when getting into a conversation about Abrams.
Abrams had been writing and producing movies since 1990 when he co-created his first television series, Felicity. The series proved to be popular, running for four seasons on The WB, and Abrams would later tap series star Keri Russell for a small role in Mission: Impossible III. After founding Bad Robot (with Bryan Burk) in 2001, Abrams created the series Alias, which ran for five seasons on ABC and turned Jennifer Garner into a star. Abrams would follow this up with his most popular and successful TV series, Lost, which he co-created with Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber. With Lost, Abrams was free to dabble in many different genres — mystery, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy — all at once and audiences gobbled it up, with more than 15 million viewers tuning in during the first season and an average of 11 million viewers still engrossed by the final season. Even though he transitioned into feature directing in 2006, Abrams continued to develop series for television, co-creating Fringe (2008–2013) and Undercovers (2010) and producing Person of Interest (2011–present), Alcatraz (2012) and Revolution (2012–present).